Childhood Bereavement - Helping Kids Cope With Loss

Childhood Bereavement - Helping Kids Cope With Loss

It seems we all have had experience, in our families or with close friends, where a death has left children to cope with life without Mom, Dad, a grandparent, relative, or close friend. In my own family, my brother's four kids were 11, 9, 6, and 2 when they lost their mother to breast cancer. She was 36, and my brother was the classic example of a well-intentioned father who believed his kids would "get over it" faster if they just moved on and forgot about her. Those kids, now adults, wonder what color their mother's eyes were and what she was like as a person.

My brother's reaction is common. In our death-averse society, there is a reluctance to discuss death, particularly with children. There is a belief that children, especially young children, won't understand the loss or grieve for the person who died. This simply isn't true. According to Dr. David Schonfeld, M.D., director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, children of all ages grieve and they all need acknowledgement and caring from the adults around them in order to cope with their grief.

Indeed, grieving children are more prevalent than we realize. At least one in nine Americans will lose a parent by age 20; one in seven will experience a loss of a parent or sibling by age 20. [1]

These numbers are eye-opening. What we know is that young people who are unable to cope with a loss often become more introverted and feel isolated. Frequently, they know no other child who has experienced such a loss, causing them to feel different and alone. Their self-esteem can be adversely affected. They may be less able to focus and stay on top of schoolwork. They may use negative coping mechanisms such as acting out, using drugs or alcohol, or cutting themselves. Depression may set in.

Yet, as a society, we don't acknowledge that children grieve. Instead, we've adopted a code of silence on the subject:

  • Parents and other adults often don't discuss death with their child for fear of upsetting them.
  • Children often don't discuss their feelings surrounding a death for fear of upsetting their parent(s) or other adults.
  • Friends don't discuss loss because they don't know what to say.

The end result: children are left to process their feelings alone.

For more than 165 years, New York Life agents have been working with families and businesses to ensure they are financially prepared for the death of a loved one. Lack of financial security can, and often does, send families into a tailspin that exacerbates the grieving process. "Will we have enough money to keep things as they have been?" is the question most frequently asked by parents and children. Children worry about having to move, change schools, leave their friends, miss out on extracurricular activities, or being able to attend college. Without adequate financial resources, surviving adults often need to work a second job in order to provide for their kids, making them less present and available to guide and support their children through the grieving process.

The New York Life Foundation is working to boost the conversation around bereavement in communities across the country by giving children a voice and the resources they need to properly grieve and heal. In 2008, the foundation added childhood bereavement to its funding focus, with the goal of supporting programs that assist children in bereavement and foster a national discussion, thus breaking the code of silence for grieving children.

Our new focus also empowers the company's agents to provide additional support to the families and businesses they serve. Not only do agents tend to the financial needs of their clients with resources provided through the foundation, they now have tools to support the emotional needs of those they serve.

The foundation's goals for our childhood bereavement focus are many-fold:

Raise awareness. The foundation is raising awareness about the issue with parents and other adults who deal with kids, including school psychologists and teachers, youth service workers in nonprofit organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs and Ys, and medical communities. We are also in the early stages of forming a partnership with the National Council of Churches to begin to help raise awareness of the issue in the faith community.

In addition, the foundation recently supported a public opinion poll about the frequency of childhood loss and its impact to get a clearer understanding of the issues around childhood bereavement. The survey is helping to raise awareness of the issue and what can be done to ease what some call "the grief journey."

Fund effective programs. The New York Life Foundation's national partners, Comfort Zone Camp and Camp Erin, are serving thousands of kids each year with free, weekend-long camps that help kids learn that they are not alone and that there are ways to cope with the sadness and move forward in their grief journey.

The camp experience gives these children a chance to be surrounded by caring adults who give them their undivided attention, to share their stories and feelings about their loss, and to simply have fun. Celebrating and memorializing activities are also built into the agenda. Parents report and I have experienced firsthand as a camp volunteer that their children are positively affected by their time at camp. For many, it is the first time they've been given permission to talk about their loss, show sadness, and share their feelings.

Empower New York Life agents in their community. New York Life agents are able to refer to these camps families in their communities who may be affected by a family death. In addition, agents have an opportunity to volunteer at the camps and witness how the experience benefits campers. The firsthand knowledge and resources make the services the agents offer even more helpful and meaningful.

In addition, the New York Life Foundation has created a resource guide in partnership with Dr. David Schonfeld. The booklet, "After a Loved One Dies How Children Grieve," is available for free download in Spanish and English, and in hard copy in English. The guide describes how parents and other adults can help children understand death and offers suggestions for helping children cope. The foundation makes these guides available to agents who can offer them to grieving families during a time when they are needed most.

Support, participate, and encourage collaboration on the topic. There are more than three hundred centers across the country that focus, at least in part, on helping grieving children. They include the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, and Cornerstone of Hope in Independence, Ohio. The National Alliance of Grieving Children, a membership organization, just completed a three-day symposium during which several centers shared best practices and learned from each other. New York Life sponsored and participated in the gathering.

In addition, the foundation is partnering with Scholastic to distribute the bereavement booklet to tens of thousands of school psychologist across the country. A Web site and teacher training are also on the docket, while New York Life has partnered with Sesame Workshop to distribute materials it created about how families grieve.

The need is clear and great. New York Life is proud to be doing its part to nurture these children, positively affecting future generations by giving them the ability to grieve, heal, and grow.

[1] Key Findings: Comfort Zone Camp General Population Survey(December 2009)

Chris Park is president of the New York Life Foundation, which makes grants to national and local nonprofits and provides leadership and support to New York Life agents, employees, and retirees who want to make a difference in the lives of others.